Mead in three weekends
Make great mead in only three weekends
Want to begin your first batch of mead, but don't know how? Made a batch of mead but it tasted terrible? (don't worry, it happens to the best of us). Maybe you've only *heard* of mead (on Game of Thrones) and have no idea what it's all about... but you'd like to give it a shot!
Here's a step-by-step instruction manual on how to make your first batch of mead, and it'll only take three weekends of work all up.
In the end you'll have five gallons of sweet ambrosia to share with friends and impress your family.
Table of contents
what the heck is mead anyway?
Mead is a type of wine made from honey instead of grapes. Just like wine or bread, the sugars in the honey are fermented by yeast over time to produce the alcohol of the wine - and carbon dioxide as a by-product (which is where the bubbles come from).
It can either be made with just plain honey, or it can be flavoured with spices or herbs (collectively known as "metheglin") or with fruits and fruit juices (in which case they're called "melomel").
Before you start...
here's some important stuff to know!
The recipe below doesn't have extra-precise measurements, special chemicals or use expensive equipment (or even a hydrometer). This is a really basic beginners recipe - and that stuff isn't needed to get a really good result on your first batch.
A lot of modern wine recipes call for all sorts of chemicals - usually for the purpose of cutting off a fermentation partway through the process, or preserving it for years afterwards.
I choose not to use chemicals because I'm allergic to them. The sulphate preservatives used in most modern wines can trigger migraine. They also are one of the main causes of a nasty hangover (apart from dehydration). I much prefer to use the more natural method of stopping fermentation by just waiting it out. It also brings the added benefit of ensuring a much lower likelihood of the fermentation restarting inside your "finished" bottles, and thus far less wasted wine at the end.
As to preserving - the mead for this recipe will last just fine for at least 2 years, if stored well, and I tend to find that it's all been drunk by then anyway. If you're planning on keeping it longer - then I'd suggest getting a good basic book on country wine-making and following their instructions. The chemical that preserves wine is found in the "campden tablets" that are added at the very end of the process.
But you shouldn't need to worry about preservation unless you make it with a very low alcohol level, or plan to keep it over 4 years. In general, honey keeps very well - especially with added alcohol.
I'll warn you now, making mead takes time... more than most people think. If you've brewed beer before and are used to a three-to-six week bottling turn-around you may not be used to the downtime. Mead takes months... preferably a year to finish up. Luckily, most of that time is spent just having the bottle sitting quietly in the corner doing its own thing so shouldn't really impact you much at all. All up, it'll only take around three weekends of actual effort (as per the article title), but elapsed time should be a minimum of six months.
I personally reckon that mead is great for procrastinators - people who are very busy and only have a weekend to spare once or twice a year - because all it takes is around three weekends of work - and the longer you put off getting around to bottling it, the more mature the mead will be and thus the better it will taste ;)
get your kit together
Start by deciding how much mead you want to make. This will determine the size of the carboy you need - which is the name for the bottle you'll be using to keep you rmead while it brews.
I tend to brew in 5-gallon batches (note this is an Imperial gallon, not a US gallon), and this is the size of your average beer-brewing bucket. However, that is a lot of mead (about 26 wine bottles). You may be more comfortable using just a 1-gallon demi-john (about 5-6 wine bottles) to start out. That's enough mead to get a good taste for yourself - and some to give to friends... without being too expensive or wasting a lot of money.
Please note that all my amounts for the recipe below are for the 5-gallon bottle, so you'll need to adjust your amounts according to the size of carboy you eventually choose.
You can get a carboy either from a brewing supplies shop or online - just do a search for "homebrew wine" to find an online store. I'll include an amazon link below, but be aware that glass carboys (which are the best for mead) are heavy and fragile - so you may prefer to go pick and one up from a local store yourself.
You can purchase one of the all-in-one beer-making kits if that's all that is available to you, but this is not the preferred option. Beer-brewing kits are generally made from plastic which is generally permeable to air. This is not good as your mead will be sitting in it for many months and will be slowly oxygenated over time. This affects the flavour and the brewing process (including formation of alcohol), and that's not what you want to have happen. It's best to use a glass carboy if at all possible.
You'll also need all the regular equipment and sterilising stuff for your average fermenter. At the very least you will need an airlock and rubber bung for your carboy, and some special brewing sterilising solution.
Ask at your local brew-shop for what else you will need to begin with. It may also be convenient for you to pick up your racking equipment, and bottles and corks at the same time - these are discussed in the "second" and "third" weekend sections (far below).
Read any and all instructions that come with your brewing equipment so you gain a good understanding of how it all goes together. It's too hard for me to describe it all in this short space, so if you are still confused, get yourself a basic brewing-book before proceeding. It's really important to understand how it all works!
Carboys on amazon
your recipe for success
The most important ingredient is, of course, honey. You'll need a large amount. I use 12kg of honey for 5-gallons of mead, but that will make for a very sweet mead. Generally the less honey you put in, the drier it will be - though it also depends on such factors as yeast-type, nutrients, temperatures etc - for a full discussion of such variables get yourself a good wine-making book, but for now try for between 1.5 and 2 kg per gallon - this is a good medium amount. Any less than this and your mead runs the risk of tasting watery - or being so dry as to be unpalatable.
Next find some spices that you like. Good examples are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace etc. The sorts of flavours you'd normally put into a dessert are what generally go best in mead.
For 5-gallons of mead, I usually use about two big packets (100gm total) of cinnamon. You can get this cheaply from your local oriental store. I also add a handful of cloves, but be careful! It's very easy to overdo cloves, and that will drown out the other flavours, and make your tongue numb to boot! Two tablespoons will generally do it.
I've also used cardamom - but that has a very strong flavour so be careful and only use a very small amount. But try any of those dessert-like spices to add to the flavour.
Make sure that your spices are whole, not ground - as you will find it very difficult to extract powder when it becomes suspended in the liquid.
Also get yourself one or two whole citrus fruit (or half a grapefruit) for every gallon you are making. The juice of citrus will add a necessary acid, a little of which is needed by the yeast, but mostly it gives a nice, round flavour to your mead. Oranges and lemons are good - but also consider limes, mandarins and grapefruit for a nice and different tangy flavour.
Make sure you have some wine yeast - go to your local brew-shop and ask specifically for wine-yeast (definitely not baking yeast, and preferably not beer-yeast - both of which are more vigourous and less alcohol-tolerant than you want). You can go whole-hog and purchase some specific mead-yeasts from specialist places, but this isn't really necessary - just an all-purpose wine-yeast is fine. Check out my general article on mead for some details on how to find good yeasts for mead-making.
If you can, get yourself some yeast-nutrient (vitamins and minerals for yeast). Nutrient is also available from your brew shop or yest supplier. Nutrient is not entirely necessary, but can help to make sure that the yeast gets the required trace-elements not normally found in plain honey.
The first weekend: Making your mead
Once you have everything, you'll need a day where you can do all the work - once you get practised it'll take a much shorter time, but for now it's better if you have extra time just in case.
Read through the next few sections so you have all the preparations in order, then work your way through them one by one.
Step 1: Cleanliness...
good hygiene goes a long way!
The success of your mead depends on good hygiene.
You don't want to spend months of hard work only to have it all foiled by a small lapse in conscientiousness at an inopportune time. Brewing is a lot like cooking - but just done over a much longer time-period. Much the same principles apply.
Make sure that you thoroughly wash your carboy - even if it's brand new! There can be dust in it, from it sitting around in the shop or factory, waiting to be bought.
If you use detergent, it's best to rinse it out again with plain water - because the detergents can react with the delicate flavours in the honey - and that can make for yucky flavours in your mead :(
To sterilise or not to sterilise...
If you have a second-hand carboy, or if you are worried about the hygiene, then by all means sterilise the carboy. I used to do this religiously, but have since found it unnecessary. However, I have a pretty clean kitchen and no pets or kids in the house... I'm also pretty experienced with handling batches of mead.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to sterilise your brewing containers - and it's definitely added insurance to be sure. Just make sure you do this *safely*.
Always make sure your steriliser is *meant* for brewing, and make sure you read the instructions carefully and follow them exactly!
If you choose to sterilise, you may need to let the carboy sit for a day before you begin the next step of the process. If you let live yeast come into contact with sterilising solution, it will no longer be live yeast... which kinda defeats the point. So again - make sure you read the instructions on your sterilising solution and get everything done in the proper time.
Safety note: Do not use ordinary household sterilisers!
These are unsafe for consumption. Remember, that you're going to be drinking this stuff at the end of it, and you don't want it to be either deadly or chlorine-flavoured. :P
Proper brewing sterilisers are available at all brewing supply stores, and often some supermarkets and similar stores. It's worth that little bit of extra effort to get the right stuff.
Step 3: Boiling up your ingredients
Bubble bubble toil and trouble
There's a myth going around that medieval people used to drink beer because the alcohol kills off the germs in the water. It's actually untrue, what kills off the germs is the fact that all brewing starts by boiling up all the ingredients, which is what we're going to do next.
The next thing we're going to do is boil your spices. Most recipes just tell you to tip your spices into the carboy and let the wine sit on them for a week. This works ok... but I've noticed that it leads to your mead sitting on your spices for so long that the astringent "bad" flavours are extracted from the spices - along with the good volatile ones... plus you have to pick them out of your sticky mead. It's actually much easier (and IMO gives a better taste) if you extract the spicy flavour up-front by boiling.
So, get yourself a big pot (one-two gallons is perfect) and put in all of your whole spices. Add enough water to cover them and add another two cups of water (approx) and bring it all to the boil.
Once it's boiling, let it roll for about 20 minutes (this is the bit that smells wonderful). Take it off the heat and strain the liquid into a heat-proof container, discarding the big lumps of spices. Tip out any remaining spice-crud and rinse out your pot.
Your honey: to boil or not to boil
There is long-running debate over whether it's necessary to actually boil your honey. In the "olden days" honey wasn't processed as much as it is now. Modern honey goes through an extensive set of filters before it's considered fit for consumption - and does not contain the amount of pollen, wax and even bee-parts that would have been normal for, say, a medieval maser.
However, honey also contains a number of proteins that can cause a mild "haze" in your final mead. Mostly you won't notice these hazes as it's barely perceptible in many honeys, but it would be bad form in professional mead-judging for the mead not not be crystal clear.
However - boiling the honey and skimming its froth is time-consuming, and sticky mess often ensues... so it's up to you if you feel it's worthwhile doing.
Even if you don't actually boil the honey, I *strongly* recommend heating the honey with some of the water - as it makes it easier to mix them together. You must mix the honey in until it's fully dissolved, so you might as well do it on a warm stovetop.
How to boil and skim honey
Start by getting yourself a big, wide spoon for skimming off the froth - and a big bowl into which you can tip said froth. Make sure these are in easy reach before you begin.
Pour your strained spice-water back into the pot and add more water - up to about one-third of the pot. Fill in another third with honey and leave the rest of the room for the froth. If you're only making a gallon of mead - make sure you stay well under that limit, or you'll have trouble fitting it into the carboy!
If you're doing a bigger batch - you'll probably need to repeat this step more than once to get all the honey done.
Bring this pot slowly to the boil stirring it every so often. Keep an eye on it all the time as when it gets close to the boil it *really* starts to froth... and I mean bubble-bath style.
When it gets to the boil, turn the heat low and let it simmer. As the forth rises, skim it off into the aforementioned handy bowl.
There will be a lot.
It will keep coming.
Stop when you get sick of skimming it or when it stops rising - whichever comes first.
Step 2: Activating the yeast.
The first real step.
Yeast is a living organism. As such, a swift change in environment can prove to be a shock - and can make it unhealthy... or dead. Quick changes in temperature or environment (eg dry to wet) are the sort of shock that will render your yeast into a less-than-happy state... just think how you'd feel if you were suddenly dropped from a cold environment into a hot one, and you'll get the drift.
So, treat your yeast well, and it'll respond kindly.
Most yeast is in a semi-dormant state. It is either kept dried in a packet or refrigerated. It will respond best if you let it wake up slowly from this state. This is generally referred to as activating the yeast.
If you have a liquid yeast, then this step is not necessary as the yeast is already active, just a little cold. I'd suggest that you take it out of the fridge and leave it on the bench to slowly bring the liquid up to room temperature.
If you have dried yeast, however, you need to go through the following process.
First get yourself a cupful of luke-warm water (body temp) and adding a teaspoon of sugar (brown-sugar is nice, but white sugar works just as well). Don't add any more than what I've recommended - it needs to be only a little bit of food so that the yeast isn't overwhelmed as it wakens.
Then sit the cup in a warm (but not hot) spot, where it won't be disturbed. Do not sit it above a stove/oven, or anywhere that it might be knocked over - or all your good work will go to waste!
Then sprinkle the dried yeast onto the surface of the water. Do not stir, just let it rest on the surface. If you have an individual packet, then pour it all on slowly. If you have much more - you will probably only need a teaspoon or two of the yeast.
Note: more yeast does not help your mead brew faster!
Cover the cup lightly and let it sit there while you continue. The yeast will slowly moisten and fall into the solution. After about 15 minutes it will start to smell yeasty, and may be a bit frothy. This is just fine, and it doesn't matter if you leave it for a while as you potter around doing the next step - as long as it doesn't change in temperature too much.
Step 4: Filling up your carboy
Take your pot off the heat and put a cover over it (to keep out the bugs) and let it cool down.
Remember that yeast cannot take a big change in temperature - and pouring it into this hot mix would be instantly deadly!
Similarly, don't pour it into the carboy straight away - if your carboy is plastic, it'll melt - if it's glass, it'll crack... neither is what you want!
Wait until the mixture is cool enough that you can hold your whole hand against the pot for 30 seconds or more - a bit warmer than a bath should be ok.
Now, when you decide to pour this stuff in depends on how big a batch you're making.
If you're making 5 gallons - put a gallon or so of cold water into the carboy first. Then you can pour this boiled-and-cooled honey in on top of that.
If it's only 1-gallon, you don't have as much room for water, so wait until the honey is *really* cool (just above room temp) and just pour it in by itself.
When it's cool enough - use a funnel to pour it into the carboy then cover the opening of the carboy (so dust and insects don't get in while you're boiling up the remainder).
Prepare the rest of the honey in the same way using just plain water instead of the spice-water, until all the honey is accounted for. Keep adding this boiled honey-water to the carboy when it cools enough.
When you get to the last of the honey, there will usually still be a bit of room in the carboy. That's normal and necessary - later you'll be filling this up with water - but not just yet.
Before your carboy is completely full, you'll want to add your last ingredients.
Squeeze your citrus fruit and add the juice, along with some yeast nutrient, to the carboy (follow the instructions on the packet, though usually 1 tsp per gallon is ok). Now your yeast will have all the food it needs to be healthy.
Feel free to spoon out a bit of the baby-mead for a taste.
Do not pour anything back in after tasting!
Do not dip a spoon into the mead if you've already licked it!
It will taste a *lot* sweeter than the final product, because the yeast uses up the sugar to make the alcohol. Just taste it to see if the spices and citrus taste good with the honey. If you can barely taste the spices - you may want to go boil up some more (though be careful of making too much water to fit into the carboy).
Fill 'er up
One you're satisfied with the taste, it's time to top up the carboy. Read the next section beofre continuing so you know how much room to leave in your fermentor. Also, make sure you leave a little more room to pour the yeasty-water in on top!
Now, if you're using a bottle-type carboy, there's a point where the top bit narrows up to where the cork goes in. The bit where it tapers inward is called the shoulder, and the narrowest point is called the neck.
Your carboy should be filled up to halfway up the shoulder.
If you are using a beer-fermenter (with a wide lid), you won't have a shoulder, but there's likely to be a "maximum level" marker that you can use.
Otherwise, just use your common sense as to how full it will get - ie not right up to the top, leave an inch or two of breathing-room for the froth to rise.
You do need to leave *some* space, because the first ferment can sometimes be quite vigorous and sometimes bubbles right out of the carboy. Leaving a little room will allow for this and make it less likely to "boil over".
A bit of a wider surface area will also allow oxygen to get to the yeast in this initial stage. In its earliest stage, yeast is still multuplying - and it needs extra oxygen to do this. Later it will settle down to just living its life - and at this stage it prefers to have little or no oxygen.
Don't worry if you have poured in a little too much. You can always pour some out and keep it in the fridge to add back in later.
Close 'er up and and we're done
Now we're almost done. First check the temperature of the brew by feeling from the *outside* of the brewing container.
Don't put your hand in to feel it! That would be unhygenic and probably ruin the batch by introducing bacteria.
If the temperature feels comfortably around the body temperature (or a little lower), it's time to add your yeast. Pour the yeast-water in on top and there you are.
If you have a beer-style brewing container, you'll need to put the lid onto it, otherwise fit the carboy with a rubber bung that will take an airlock.
Do not fit an airtight seal (eg a rubber bung with no hole in it). Yeast create a lot of extra gas while it's working, and there must be room for the gas to escape!
Make sure you know how to use your airlock properly - fill it correctly with water, according to the instructions.
Finally, set your carboy it in a cool, dry place for a week to work.
Intermission: First fermentation
For a day or two, the fermenter will be fairly still, but will get cloudy, often getting cloudy slowly from a centre-point. At this point, the yeast is adjusting to its new surrounds and multiplying happily.
Then the fermentation will take off in earnest. You may want to put the carboy somewhere that can be cleaned up easily in case it overflows. It will often forth, and after a few days, lots of tiny bubbles will rise in the liquid (a bit like beer).
The airlock will probably bubble with regular a "plopping" sound. You may need to check on the airlock every day, at first, to make sure the water hasn't sloshed out, or become tainted with the forth. If so - just replace the water.
When the mix isn't frothing as badly and doesn't look like it's going to "boil over", you can fill up any remaining gap (up to the neck). Once that's done, you just have to wait until the next weekend's work...
The second weekend : racking
Racking is the process of pouring the good liquid mead off the lees that will have begun to settle at the bottom of your brewing carboy. This requires the use of a syphon, and is a bit of a skill.
What are lees?
Yeast is a living thing. It goes through life turning sugars into alcohol, but eventually its life comes to an end. At the end of its life it will settle on the bottom of the carboy. Many yeast will end their days this way - and the sludge that forms on the bottom should be removed, because it's not the best stuff to drink. Thus, we rack off the drinkable stuff from the lees.
What do I need?
You'll need a container of roughly the same volume as what you have, or preferably slightly larger. It doesn't need to be a proper carboy on its own - food-safe buckets are good for this purpose or a big pot if you have only a gallon - just as long as you don't overestimate the size 'cos spilled mead is sticky!
You'll also need a length of food-grade pipe. Now you can go out and buy a special "racking pipe" from a brew-store or you can go to your local hardware store and buy some flexible water-safe pipe for only a few dollars. You'll need about 2 metres, preferably the clear-style that's safe for drinking-water. Ask someone there if you're not sure - remember that you won't have it sitting in the pipe for a long time, it'll just be through it in a few minutes and that's that until next time.
Finally, you'll need a sturdy surface to put the carboy on. Make sure there's plenty of room for the pipe to reach from the bottom of the carboy to the top of the container on the floor.
When do I rack?
You don't want to rack too early, or the lees won't yet have settled out, and you'll just have to rack again later. However, you also shouldn't leave it too long, or the mead will sit on top of the dead yeast, and eventually will pick up musty flavours.
Luckily, I've discovered that your mead can quite happily sit on the lees for at least 6 months, or even earlier if the mead completely clears. After all, the reason why it's clear is that the yeast has mostly fallen to the bottom.
This long time is why I think mead is a great hobby for procrastinators!
It's bubbling again!
When you disturb the lees, you can sometimes cause the fermentation to visibly restart. This is natural - and just means your mead mixed well and you put a bit more oxygen into the mix, as well as stirring the brew which put active yeast back in contact with fermentable sugars. Don't worry - this is a good thing. you want all that fermenting to get out of the way before you bottle.
Step 5 : How to rack your mead
Are you ready to rack?
To start with, read through *all* of these instructions before you begin... you won't have time to re-read them once you've started!
Racking is complex, but really isn't actually *difficult*. It's just a syphoning process that uses that natural tendencies of gravity to equalise the height of two bodies of liquid. Got that? :)
Set your carboy full of mead on the higher place (a chair is good for this, if you use a table, you may need a very long syphon pipe). If you disturb the lees while doing this (Ie they start swirling around in the mead) you may need to let the rest there for a day to settle again - so it may be a good idea to do this the day before. Then set the other container on the floor below it.
Put the pipe into the top carboy - don't touch the bottom! - as it will disturb the lees. Hold the pipe upright and start sucking mead up the pipe. Technically you should stop when the mead reaches near your mouth, but I know people that take a sip or two at this point... all in the spirit of testing where it's at, of course...
Now you're supposed to cover the end and quickly bring it down into the top of the container below... this is the hard part, of course... if you've ever syphoned before, you probably know what I'm talking about, but most people haven't... several things are possible to go wrong:
a) you're not covering it properly and so the mead you sucked up goes straight back down the pipe when you stop sucking - this can cause the lees to get all stirred up again - which means you need to leave it to settle again before trying again. Make sure you cover *everything* at this point - you don't want flies or dust in your mead.
b) you're covering the top ok but you accidentally pull the bottom of the pipe out of the carboy - which means the mead pours back into the carboy and you end up with the same problem as for point a
c) you're covering it ok at the top and bottom, but you miss when putting it into the top of the container below - spilling mead everywhere - well this is just a normal mess and needs cleaning up... oh well.
If you get it going ok, the mead is now draining (quite quickly) from the top carboy to the container on the floor... the trick now is to know when to stop - you want to stop when as much liquid as possible comes out of the top, but as little lees as possible... this is a real practise-necessary skill, but unfortunately there's no time to practise now - you just have to guess. A few pointers are:
a) make sure the pipe stays in the top carboy until you are ready to stop syphoning or the syphon will only be sucking up air and you'll have to restart it again.
b) make sure you pull it out if you start to suck up solid lees
c) don't be too worried if you suck up *some* lees - you can always repeat the syphon from the container back into the carboy at a later stage. It is in fact worse if you stop too soon, because stopping usually causes mead to go back into the top carboy and disturb the lees... which means you need to wait ages again for them to settle before you can continue the process...
One of the reasons to choose a good-quality, modern yeast is that they are bred such that the lees sticks to itself. This is called "flocculation", and it means that as you are syphoning off the liquid, the lees mostly stay at the bottom and don't get sucked up into the syphoning tube.
Once syphoned off, clean out the carboy (gardens love this stuff, but it is sticky so pour on with a lot of water and beware of bees - that also love it) then pour the mead back in and refit with airlock... it'll go on fermenting again and you can wait until the next step.
Intermission: Second racking?
once more, with feeling...
A second rack is sometimes, but not always required. It's up to you - you will be racking again just before bottling, but if its been months and the mead hasn't cleared yet, but a new layer of lees has formed, feel free to rack again. Racking multiple times doesn't hurt, and is certainly better than having your mead go off on the lees - but keep in mind that you lose a little of the liquid each time you rack - which means less mead in the long run...
The third weekend : bottling
When to know your mead is clear
It is *very* important not to bottle too early... how important? Well if you bottle your mead and it has not stopped fermenting, gas can build up inside eventually causing the bottle to explode - which can be very damaging to you, not to mention a waste of good mead... this is generally referred to as the "glass grenade" effect - for good reason. Don't forget, more time means better mead, so don't be afraid to leave it a bit longer if you are unsure - it's infinitely better to leave it late than to bottle too early.
So when do you know it's ready? Well, when it's clear... and I don't mean "when you can see through it", I mean when it is perfectly, clear-as-a-bell clear - so that you can read through it... With mead, this is a fairly strong indicator as honey is not prone to hazes. When it's completely clear, it's safe to bottle, but keep in mind the recommendations above.
Getting your stuff together
To bottle... you'll need bottles... on average about 6.5 to the gallon - which means get extra 'cos you never know, and it doesn't hurt. Now, if this is your first batch, feel free to use second-hand bottles - but make sure they're washed *very* thoroughly (use a bottle-washer and sterilising solution). Otherwise, purchasing new bottles is fairly cheap (usually $1-2 a bottle) and you can be more certain that they haven't been damaged. New bottles are available through brewing-supplies places and through specialist bottle-makers. Look online for one near you - preferably search for "bulk wine bottles" or something like that.
You'll also need corks and a means of putting them in bottles - there are so many types of corks that its best to ask at your brew-shop. Buy as many as you do bottles (duh!). NEVER use second-hand corks! This is like the old parable about old wine-skins... they're just not good for your mead and you can lose a good batch. Oh, and if you're worried about the world's dwindling supply of cork trees (as you should be), there are plastic corks available that are just as good (to my mind) - ask at the brew-shop.
When it comes to the actual corking-machine, you may want to know that you can hire one - which is expensive, but not so much as buying your own. Or you can buy a hand-corker - which is even less expensive, but will require a little muscle-power and a lot of coordination to use.
To start with, wash the bottles in warm water to get the dust out of them - make sure it's not too soapy or it'll be impossible to get the suds out. If you are sterilising, then rinse each bottle with some of the sterilising solution and let them dry upside down in your dishrack before you use them.
Then, rack the mead off any lees that are left (as per previous instructions).
From there on, it's fairly simple. First, read the instructions that came with your corks and see how they should be prepared. The only advice I'll give you is that if they suggest you soak them in some of the wine - don't - mead is too sweet and you'll end up with mouldy corks - I've done this once and it's not worth it :P use sterilising solution instead in that case.
Then, simply pour your mead into bottles until there's no more mead to pour. Make sure you leave room at the top of your bottle (about an inch) and beware because mead froths when you pour it too - I've often overfilled this way as I don't take the froth into account.
Then put a cork in each bottle, following the instructions of your corker.
If you had to soak your corks, then you must leave the bottles standing upright for about 24hours. This is so that the cork dries out. If you don't do this, you'll get mead oozing out of the cork by the process of osmosis which means that the seal is broken and your mead goes bad... not what you want. So leave them upright for a day (two days if it's particularly humid or cold). Then put them away in your wine rack and keep them like you would any other wine.
If your corks didn't need soaking, then you should probably leave the standing up for a few hours anyway - just because they moe a little as they get used to their now-squished position. Then you can put them away safely.
Note: if you have used natural cork then you must store your wine bottles on their sides - otherwise the cork will dry out, and shirnk and then ooze... which is just a waste of good mead! So please store your wine bottles on their sides. If you don't have a winerack - you can often put them on the floor in the linen cupboard, and stack some towels on top so they don't roll about.
Drinking your mead
When is the mead drinkable?
Technically, you can drink it from the time you boil the honey - but it's not so pleasant then... you can even drink it immediately after bottling and it's quite nice then, though will probably taste like a cheaper style of wine... but to truly enjoy your mead, it's better to be patient and leave it for at least 6 months, and preferably up to a year or two after bottling - because that allows it to mature into a full, smooth wine that is much nicer to drink.
The best thing about making your own mead is that you get to enjoy it as it ages. The benefit of making a large batch is that it lasts as you drink it and by the time you get to the last bottles, it has become wonderfully mature (and you often wonder why you didn't have the patience to leave it *all* until then).
How to drink it
This is very much a matter of taste - some like it cold, some like it warm. I personally prefer it like red wine - at room temperature. I also tend to drink it in a small sherry glass (my meads are usually very sweet), but am equally happy to drink it in a large drinking horn if that's what's on offer ;)
Take it as you will and enjoy - it was your effort that got you here.
I've had this recipe up on the web for a while now, and I just recently went and had a look at the search-phrases people use to get here. A lot of them clearly indicate they have questions about the mead-making process. I've added some FAQs to cover what I saw there, but if you have any question not covered, feel free to ask in the reader comment section below.
Q: Can I use baker's yeast?
A: It's *possible*... but I'd *strongly* recommend against it. It gives poor alcohol-tolerance and flocculation, and has a stronger tendency to impart bad flavours to your mead. A large batch of mead does not require much more yeast than a smaller batch - you can use a single teaspoon of yeast for up to 10 gallons of mead, easily - and above that you only need two teaspoons... it's not expensive to buy just a single sachet of real yeast - and while it's a little more expensive than bakers yeast - think of how much (expensive) honey you'll have wasted if it goes wrong.
If you do use bakers yeast - you must drink your mead very early - three to six weeks, or it will start to taste sour. Your mead will almost certainly not clear, so it will remain cloudy.This works just fine if what you want is a quick-and-dirty recipe to get something out the door within a month... but for better flavour and texture, I still recommend finding some wine (or even beer) yeast.
Q: Does mead go bad
A: That's a complicated question and can refer to many things, so the answer is "it depends". Yes it's possible for bad things to happen to your mead while fermenting - eg if bacteria get in (especially fi the airlock has been compromised), it can cause the mead batch to get funny smells or tastes. This can happen to any home-brewed wine, and common bad things are "ropey'"or "mousey" wine, or even vinegar (just like the vinegar you buy). You can google these terms if you think your mead matches one. However there are other possible faults that are not quite so bad - eg musty smells - which can occur if you leave the mead too long on the lees (which generally isn't a problem for many many months). But if you're just wondering if mead has an "expiry date" - mead is a wine. It does not really expire if you keep it properly. Generally the lifetime of your mead depends on the lifetime of the cork in your bottle. Some corks are better than others. Eventually they'll all let some moisture leak in 9or out). So if you store your mead, check the corks every year or so to see if the seal is still good. you can often see a moisture line soaking up from the liquid int eh bottle. If that gets near the top of the cork (eg about half an inch away from the top) then time to re-cork your bottles. It's still possible for the mead to have gone bad in the bottle (we call this being "corked" - which you can google), but it's not too common.
Q: How long is it ok to leave the mead on the lees
A: It really depends. Just like a carton of milk might go ff before the use-by date, or might outlast it by several days. Sometimes it's ok to leave mead on lees for many months, and sometimes it is ruined quickly. I'd say it's ok to leave it on the lees for three months without a large risk of it spoiling. However - I've also left med on lees for six-nine months and had no trouble... and I've had one spoil at four. If you're worried - pour out a tiny sample and taste it to see if it is starting to taste "flat" or even just different. If you're worried - just rack it early (no harm comes from extra racking).
Q: is it ok that the carboy is not filled up to the line?
A: yes, it's ok. You may get a bit more oxidation than normal - this is ok, and makes the mead taste more like sherry or port (because in fact this is how sherry is made). This is a Good Thing if you are making a sweet mead as it adds to the flavour profile (I think)... but of course perhaps is not what you wish for. If you are worried, you can always top up the carboy with a little water -> pre-boil it (then let it cool) to be sure you don't interfere with the yeast. It will dilute the mead a little - and if you're measuring specific gravity, make sure you take a measurement before and after. you *can* add a little honey to your water (before boiling), so as not to dilute the mead... but it may restart a settled batch and extend the time it takes to finish.
Q: can mead be matured in a fridge?
A: tl;dr: No. The best maturation temperature is "cellar temperature in England" (ie about 15 degrees Centigrade). Most fridges are below 4 degrees which is way too low. This temperature range will kill most of the yeast, and the little that remains will slow down so much that there is almost no growth (and therefore no changing of sugars into alcohol).
It is possible to buy specific fridges for fermentation that will keep your mead at the right temperature - but they're expensive. The cheaper option is to find somewhere cool and dry-ish in your house. Away from sunlight and external walls.
Q: The yeast did not activate for mead - now what?
A: Sometimes it might just take a bit longer. See if your mead is cloudy after a day - if so - it's just taking a bit longer than normal. If you're concerned, or if you see no cloudiness. Just put a new batch of yeast in. Go buy a new, fresh batch of yeast to be sure. Make sure you read the instructions on how to activate it *before* putting it into the mead.
Q: is it ok to rack mead into plastic?
A: Yes. There's no problem with mead touching plastic at any time. The only
reason why I recommend making your mead in glass/ceramic is that plastic is
very porous, and will allow too much exchange of air. For making beer this is fine, because beer is usually only brewed for a period of weeks. But mead will be in there for months - and too much extra oxygen will oxidise out too many the volatile flavours. It also affects the production of alcohol - because the alcohol-producing process of yeast occurs in an anaerobic state (ie without oxygen). The aerobic process of yeast just produces water and carbon-dioxide.
Q: mead tastes like yeast - what's wrong?
A: Your mead just hasn't finished yet. It's the yeast that is still active in it that makes it taste that way. Mead is a wine - which means it takes much longer to mature than beers. Professional wine-makers always leave their wine for *at least* one year - and usually several years (especially red wine) before they even try to sell them to the public. You should do the same thing too. Be patient... it's worth it :)
if you have no choice and must et the mead ready for an event... you can kill most of the yeasty-flavour by putting the mead into the fridge for a couple of days. Make sure that you drink it very soon after taking it out of the fridge, or it will begin to ferment once more and you'll be back where you started...
Q: My mead tastes too citrusy - how do I adjust it?
A: Adjusting flavours is a black art - it's pretty much the same process as cooking. You can experiment with a small portion in your own kitchen, and when you get it right, make the change to your batch.
Otherwise, I don't know what to recommend to you directly... but if your mead is still very young (ie not yet finished) I actually suggest just waiting for some considerable period of time. Brewing changes the flavour profile like you wouldn't believe. Think about the difference in taste between a grape and red wine. An extra year of brewing (which is how long most wine is left before you drink it) will change the flavour so much that it will be very different.
Still - if what you really mean is that it is too *acidic* - then you can counter that by sweetening the mead. Doing this without restarting the brewing process is difficult, though - I suggest you go to (or call) your local brewing shop and ask for help.
Q: How do I make my mead taste less watery?
A: Add more honey! Seriously, a watery mead just means there is too much water in it... compared with the honey. The ratio bewteen these two is important, and if you can clearly taste water - you just adjust the honey part of the ratio.
Q: I woke up and my air lock was filled with crud will my batch be ok?
A: Hard to say. If you cleared it out quickly and didn't find any bits of dead flies in it... then I'd hazard a guess at "probably". The airlock is there for two reasons:
1 - to keep oxygen from getting in, so as to keep the yeast in an anaerobic state (so to keep alcohol being produced) and
2 - to keep flies out - specifically vinegar flies - which carry bacteria that will turn your batch into (you guessed it) vinegar.
Your batch will not be ruined if it gets a little bit of oxygen in it for a day. The alcohol-forming process is very slow in mead-making, so a single day won't affect it enough for you to notice.
Your batch *will* be ruined, (totally and completely) if it gets infected with vinegar-producing bacteria. If that has happened... then you've made some very nice honey-vinegar that you can give away to your friends...
At this point, there's no point worrying which it is. If you literally find dead-flies floating in your brew - then sure, make the decision whether to ditch it. But otherwise - clean out the airlock and keep going. Leave it a week or two, then have a smell. if it smells *strongly* of vinegar... then that's your answer... but otherwise, keep it going and it may just all turn out just fine.
Q: Could my demi-john explode though being overfilled?
A: No. Not unless you put a hard-cap seal on the top. If your carboy bubbles up too much, it will spill through the airlock and probably make a huge mess on the floor... but it won't explode - because it needs to be under considerable pressure for that happen, and an airlock just doesn't provide that.
Q: how do I make my mead sweeter?
A: This is a good question. Remember that fermentation is the yeast turning sugars into alcohol. So the sweetness of the finished mead depends on two factors: how much honey you put in at the beginning (which determines how much sugar there is to convert) and how alcohol-tolerant the yeast is (ie how much sugar it will turn into alcohol).
If you have a stronger yeast, then it will turn more sugar into alcohol, and thus the mead will be less sweet - so one way to make your mead sweeter is to use less-strong yeast. You can do this by using beer yeast (though beware that you may get beery flavours in your mead), or search out some special sweet-wine yeasts. if you go to your local brewing shop (or go online) and look for yeast that has a *low* alcohol tolerance, you will find what you need.
f you add more honey, you will end up with a sweeter mead. More sugar means that by the time the yeast is done fermenting, there should still be plenty of sugar left over at the end to be sweet. However beware: there is a level where there is too much sugar in your mead for yeast to survive.- causing what is known as a "stuck ferment". I'd recommend no more than 2 kilograms of honey for imperial gallon, just to be sure.
It is, however, possible to add more honey after the brew has started 0 and bypass having too much sugar at any one time. To do this, start off with a smaller amount of honey (eg 1 kilogram in a gallon), making sure to leave some head-room in your carboy (ie don't fill it to the top). Let the mead ferment for a fortnight or so - thus letting some of the sugar convert to alcohol. Then put in another kilogram. You may repeat until you reach the desired level of both alcohol and sugar. I recommend tasting a little as you go along (being careful not to put any mead back into the carboy that has touched anything you've tasted).
Q: My mead makes my tongue numb - why?
A: this probably means you've added too many cloves to your spice-mix. Clove-oil is strongly numbing. Many years ago it was used to numb your mouth before teeth were pulled, before real anaesthetics were discovered. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to remove the effect once it's already in your brew... it's always sensible to follow that old adage "you can always add more later, but you can't take it out again". However, all is not entirely lost - it is possible for you to make a second batch, and put no cloves into that one... then mix the two together. Many a batch can be saved by marrying it to a complementary batch.
Q: My mead tastes musty
A: Ok... so this is a nasty place to be... but it's still *possible* in some cases to restore it. Firstly - make sure you've racked the mead off the lees (see instructions far above). Secondly - put the mead in the fridge for a few days to kill off anything that's in the batch. Thirdly, leave it to settle out a bit more. Sometimes the musty flavour is just some suspended, dead yeast that has not yet left the batch. This especially often happens when you use bakers (or sometimes beer) yeast instead of real wine yeast. Sometimes, however, it really is an infection of your mead... thus the fridge to kill whatever it is off. which may or may not work.
If it does not, then I'm really sorry - there's not much left you can do, but keep it as a lesson to learn for next time.
Q: How do I stop the fermentation?
A: The best answer to this is "just wait it out". You'll end up with a better-tasting, more stable mead if you just wait until it naturally finishes up. If you stop the ferment early (by any technique) you run the risk of glass-grenades if/when the fermentation restarts itself inside your bottle.
The only time when stopping the ferment early is advisable is if you're making this mead specifically for a special occasion with a set date, and the mead isn't done yet. in that case, I'd recommend stopping the ferment by putting your mead in the fridge for a few days, and serving it very shortly after you take it out of the fridge..
Want to know more?
- On Mead
Where I go into the details of mead and provide many more links to further reading...
A little bit about me
I've been brewing mead for 16 years now and love the stuff. I've perfected my favourite recipes and am now experimenting with some wild and crazy things (chilli mead anyone?) just for fun. :)
Basic gear for homebrew
Here's some basic homebrew kit. Note: most homebrew gear is aimed at beer brewers - but most of it will transfer to wine-making as well.